Abelly: Book 2/Chapter 05

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The holy Council of Trent was aware of how important it was for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful that those promoted to sacred orders have the requisite dispositions and qualities of that state in the Church. It recognized that if virtues were not cultivated early in the hearts of the young there was good reason to fear they would never develop the deep roots required by a life of priestly service. Rather, if the necessary virtues were not cultivated, the candidates would accept benefices or ecclesiastical offices, and receive holy orders without the required dispositions. Instead of building up the Church they would serve as stumbling blocks by the evil example of their lives. For these and other considerations, the council directed seminaries to be established in each diocese. In them, young men with an aptitude and inclination to the clerical state could be trained in piety and the appropriate branches of knowledge. The poor were to be preferred, but others would not be excluded. In either case their minds and spirits were to be carefully cultivated, to make it possible for them one day to give fruitful service to the Church.

Although this decree had been most wisely adopted by the council, the corruption and evil spirit of the times prevented it from being carried out as completely as had been hoped. Many of the great prelates of the kingdom who had attended the council, did set up these seminaries in their dioceses upon their return to France. Unfortunately, as time went on, instead of the choice of students being limited to those inclined to the ecclesiastic state, and the staff being selected from among the most learned, pious, and those distinguished by their sacerdotal spirit, the opposite happened. Temporal and personal interest prevailed and all the good planning degenerated. On the one hand, the townspeople in those places where the seminaries were established saw they could avoid paying for the education of their sons by having them trained in these seminaries. This would exclude the poor, with no thought of their possible calling to the ecclesiastic state. On the other hand, the directors and teaching staff of the seminaries were not put in the hands of the most capable, but in those most able to scheme for personal advantage. All this resulted in the Church in France being deprived of the benefits envisioned by the fathers of the council.

Monsieur Vincent was aware of this abuse which displeased him greatly. He attempted to bring some relief by setting up a seminary as the council suggested, in the College des Bons Enfants at Paris, [1] for the instruction and training in virtue and knowledge of those young men in whom some inclination and disposition to the ecclesiastical state had been noticed. His experience with this kind of seminary convinced him it was too slow in producing tangible results. It took a long time for a young boy to complete his training and enter into holy orders and the ministry of the Church. Monsieur Vincent foresaw, too, that those educated in the seminaries would not always fulfill the hopes placed in them, and that several of them would not have a vocation to the ecclesiastical state. As a result, the Church would not receive any help in the great need it had for good holy priests.

For these reasons Monsieur Vincent judged it useful and in some way even necessary to establish other seminaries for those clerics already ordained, or who were soon about to receive holy orders. They were to be taught over a long time the theology they needed, principally moral theology, the administration of the sacraments, and the various functions they were expected to know, such as plain chant, the rites of the Church, how to catechize, and how to preach. Above all, they were to be guided in the virtues proper to their state, in leading a well-regulated life, conformable to the character they bore, to be ready for whatever assignment given them by their bishop, and prepared to render useful service to the Church. He began this seminary at the College des Bons Enfants, as we mentioned in Book One, [2] but without closing the minor seminary. He renamed it the Seminary of Saint Charles, and moved it to a building near Saint Lazare. He continued this minor seminary to fulfill the wishes of the council and to use this as one more means of securing good priests for the Church. [3]

It pleased God to bestow such blessings to this seminary established by Monsieur Vincent for clerics already promoted to sacred orders, or for those about to be, that besides the fruit they produced and continued to produce, they served as models for many others in various other dioceses.

For good reason a most zealous servant of God worked strenuously together with his community for the reform of the ecclesiastical state. [4] He had deplored that, whereas academies for the nobility prepared young gentlemen for their position in life, and that every occupation, no matter how humble, had its system of apprentices before allowing them to practice their trade, yet in the clerical state alone was it possible to enter the profession with little or no preparation. This was a more grievous failing in that these priests were destined for most important functions and for a ministry of divine service. At length it pleased God to remedy this serious deficiency through the seminaries, which served as schools of virtue and sanctity, where the candidates for the priesthood learned the science of the saints. So it is that in these latter days God raised up Monsieur Vincent and his Congregation of the Mission to answer this holy and pressing need, and to which he gave his special blessing.

On one occasion Monsieur Vincent spoke to the priests of his community on the topic of seminaries:

God has particularly sent the missionaries to work for the sanctification of priests. One of the purposes of our institute is to teach them, not only the subjects they must know, but also the virtues they must practice. To show them the one without the other is to do little or almost nothing. They must be able to understand how to lead a good life. Otherwise, they would serve no purpose, and even be dangerous. We must do both, then, as a duty asked of us by God.

In the beginning we gave scarcely a thought to serving the clergy. Our concern was ourselves and the poor. How did the Son of God begin? He remained hidden. He seemed to think only of himself, he prayed, and did nothing special. Only later did he announce the Gospel to the poor. He finally chose his apostles, and took pains to teach them and form them to virtue. Lastly he sent his Spirit upon them, not for themselves alone but for all people upon earth. He also taught them all they needed to know to become priests, to administer the sacraments, and to acquit themselves worthily of their ministry.

So it was at the beginning of our little Company. Our first concern was our own spiritual development, and then the evangelization of the poor. At times we were preoccupied with ourselves, and at other times we would go to the people in the countryside. God allowed us to begin like that, but in the fullness of time he has called us to contribute to the formation of good priests, to provide pastors for the people, and to show them what they must know and do. How elevated is this work! How sublime! How far above us is this calling! Who among us would ever have thought of the ordination retreats or of the seminaries? This thought never entered our heads, until God made known to us that we were to undertake this work. The Company has been brought to this with no choice on our part, but God expects us now to apply ourselves seriously, humbly, devoutly, constantly, corresponding to the excellence of this call.

Some might say that they came to the Congregation to work in the country in favor of the poor, and not to be shut up in the cities in a seminary. Each one of us should know, however, that what we do for the clergy, especially in the seminaries, must not be neglected under the pretext of caring for the missions. We must do both, not slight either, for we are obliged to do both by our institute. Long experience has taught us that it is difficult to preserve the fruits of the missions we give if we are not supported by the pastors whom we seek to serve by our Company. This is why we ought to do willingly what we can for their welfare.

To work for the instruction of poor people is truly a great work, but it is even better to help the clergy, for if they are ill-formed the people they lead are bound to be the same. We could ask the Son of God, why did you come upon earth? Was it not to evangelize the poor, in obedience to your Father's will? Why then did you consecrate priests? Why did you take such care to train and teach them? Why did you give them the power to consecrate, the power to bind and to loose? The Savior would respond that he came not only to teach truths necessary for salvation, but to prepare a priesthood superior to the priesthood of the Old Law. You are aware that in ancient times God rejected priests who dishonored their office, who profaned sacred things. He looked upon their sacrifices with horror, and said that he would raise up other priests. From the rising of the sun to its setting, and from south to north, they would make their voices heard: In omnem terram exivit sonus eorum ["Through all the earth their voice resounds"]. [5] How did he accomplish this? By his Son, our Savior, who chose priests, instructed and formed them, and gave his Church the power, through them, to make other priests. Sicut misit me Pater, et ego mitto vos ["As the Father has sent me, so I send you"]. [6] He did this to act through them in the centuries to come, to do what he had done in his own lifetime, to save all peoples by their teachings and by their administration of the sacraments.

It would be a mistake, a great mistake, for a missionary not to help as best he can, in the work of forming good priests, for there is nothing better than a good priest. Think as long as we like, we will not find anything better than to help in forming a good priest, to whom our Lord gives power over his body, both corporal and mystical. He gives the priest the power of consecration, and the power to forgive sins. O God, what power! What a dignity! These considerations ought to lead us to serve the ecclesiastical state, which is so holy and so exalted. This is all the more true because of the need of the Church for good priests, to attend to the ignorance and vice with which the world is so filled, for which good people should shed tears of blood.

We may wonder if all the disorders we see in the world might not be laid at the feet of priests. It may scandalize some even to suggest this, but the subject demands that I show the extent of the evil, to point out the importance of supplying a remedy. Several meetings have recently been held on this, to seek the causes of such ills, the result of which is that the Church has no worse enemy than the bad priest. Heresies have come from them, as for example the recent great initiators of heresy, Luther and Calvin, both of whom were priests. Because of priests, heresies gained a foothold, vice reigned, and ignorance set up its throne among the poor people. This came about because of their own misconduct, their failure to combat with all their strength, as they were obliged, these three torrents which now have engulfed the whole world. What sacrifice, then, gentlemen, should we not make to help them live in keeping with the sanctity of their state, so the Church might be delivered from the sad desolate state in which she is. [7]

On another occasion, he said:

The character of the priest is a participation in the priesthood of the Son of God. He gives them the power to offer the sacrifice of his body, and to give it as food for eternal life to those who receive it. It is a divine and incomparable character, a power over the body of Jesus Christ whom the angels adore, and a power to forgive sins, a subject of astonishment and thanksgiving to them. Is there anything more admirable or greater? O gentlemen, how great a good priest is! What can a good priest not accomplish? How many conversions can he not secure? Look at Monsieur Bourdoise, this excellent priest, what he does, and what he can do in the future! The well-being of Christianity depends on the priest, for when parishioners see in him a good ecclesiastic, a charitable pastor, they respect and follow his voice, striving to imitate him. How we should strive to do good for them, since this is our duty, and the priesthood is such an elevated state!

But, O Lord, if a good priest can do so much, how much evil can a bad one do if he sets himself to is! How difficult to put him on the right way! O my Savior, how we poor missionaries should devote ourselves to you, to contribute to the formation of good priests. This is the most difficult, the most elevated, the most important for the salvation of souls and for the advancement of Christianity.

If Saint Vincent Ferrer strove for sanctification so that God would one day raise up good priests and apostolic workers for the reform of the ecclesiastical state and for readying men for the last judgment, how much stronger reason we have in our day for working for our perfection to cooperate in such a happy restoration when we see the ecclesiastical state now returning to what it should be. [8]

These were the sentiments of this holy priest, with which he passed on to his Company the zeal God had inspired in him to restore the ecclesiastical state to its original purity and splendor. This is how he encouraged them to work in the seminaries to encourage those called to orders and to charges and dignities in the Church, to receive the spirit of Jesus Christ, so necessary for them to fulfill its obligations worthily.

The zeal of Monsieur Vincent was seasoned with a great prudence, and his various occupations and long experience had given him much light. He judged that to profit from seminary training, the clerics who followed the program would require a long time if it was to be fruitful. He thought those who aspired to orders ought to spend at least a year in the seminary to purge from their spirits all bad habits they may have contracted in the world, and to strip from their hearts all undue attachment to creatures. They would thereby progress in the knowledge and love of God, to whose service they wished to dedicate themselves. This time would be required to penetrate deeply the truths of Christianity, the maxims of the Gospel which God revealed to us by his Son, and to establish solidly in their hearts the principles of sanctity and perfection through solid resolutions to follow the example of the life and virtues of Jesus Christ.

He believed this extended time was necessary to learn how to make mental prayer well, saying in this regard: "What the sword is to the soldier, mental prayer is to the one dedicated to the service of the altar." This was all the more true, since one of the main functions of the priest was to offer prayer and sacrifice to God.

He thought it best not to exempt any from this seminary experience, even the most virtuous and learned. Besides increasing both these qualities, and so making themselves more worthy of their calling, their presence among the others was most helpful, since generally the example of the strong encourages the weak, and they follow the path of virtue more easily when they see others walking it. He was convinced, too, that by making the rule universal he would be saved from the importunities of those seeking exemptions, to their own disadvantage. He referred to the example of the late bishop of Cahors, a perfect model for prelates. [9] He took it as a principle to dispense no one of his diocese from the obligation of attending the seminary before receiving holy orders, and remaining a full year before receiving the subdiaconate, then remaining until they were ordained to the priesthood. This firm policy contributed much to putting his diocese in good condition, as he wrote to Monsieur Vincent some years before his death:

You would be pleased to see my clergy, and you would bless God a thousand times over if you could realize the good your priests have done in my seminary. Its effects have been felt in the entire province. [10]

To appreciate more fully the great utility of the seminaries by the nature and diversity of the benefits they produced, and the powerful motives Monsieur Vincent had to exhort the priests of the Congregation of the Mission to work at this task with love and fidelity, we give here two summaries. They were written by the directors of seminaries in Paris and in Brittany. From these, we may form a judgment of what occurred in others, as well.

The report from Paris stated:

  1. The seminary is run like a continuous mission, and we see the same fruits as those we have come to expect in the country places and cities in which the missions are given. For example, those holding benefices and other responsibilities, after leading a disorderly life for a long time in their home territory, now seem to be converted. They shed tears of regret and they ask us to be allowed to admit their sins publicly, and humble themselves on all occasions. When they speak in the conferences, they admit their past blindness, and congratulate their confreres on the opportunity they have to profit from their seminary training. If some longstanding animosities trouble them, they attempt reconciliations by most humble letters to the parties concerned. They restore large sums to the Church when this is called for. In canon law, the fathers of the earliest and even the present centuries often refer to clerics as incorrigible. By the grace of God their amendment, if it occurs, ordinarily happens in the seminary.
  2. Some who have held conflicting benefices for a long time, following the custom in their province, have voluntarily stepped down.
  3. Some priests, even elderly ones, have held significant offices, such as abbots, canons, priors, and pastors, or as counselors to Parlement or to presidents. Now, however, they serve willingly as porter, acolyte, thurifer, or cantors, happy to fulfill these humble charges, or regretting not having previously served out of disdain for these lowly offices.
  4. Several who never before bothered to instruct their parishioners, now catechize. When they return home they declare openly, even from the pulpit, and to everyone's amazement, that they have come to recognize their obligations and mean to put them into practice.
  5. Several priests, upon leaving the seminary, have formed small groups of clergy to live in common, and leave their family home, even their birthplaces. They wish thereby to continue their spiritual exercises together, the better to gain others to Jesus Christ and his Church.
  6. We have had several canons of cathedral or collegial churches, who upon their return home, have succeeded with little fanfare to work with others in restoring or sustaining discipline in their churches. We hear of the zeal and prudence with which they speak in open chapter, or in private, of ecclesiastical discipline and the obligations it entails.
  7. Some others have realized the importance of elementary schools, and have undertaken from their own pockets to help them out of pure charity. This has resulted in the great blessing and edification of the villages where this has been done.
  8. We should not fail to mention that God has given the grace to most, nearly all, of persevering in piety and in the worthy fulfillment of their obligations. We have reports of this from all sides.
  9. What is most touching is the innocence of life in the seminary, which has ordinarily made it difficult for the confessors to find enough matter for absolution. [11]

Another priest of the Mission, in charge of a seminary in Brittany, [12] discussed in these words the successes he had seen:

Among the fruits of the seminary training for ecclesiastics has been increased care for the instruction of the people, to which those who were here now apply themselves most seriously. Since they were taught how to preach practically and directly, preachers have multiplied in some dioceses to the extent that where formerly a single one might be available to preach the Lenten sermons to five or six parishes together, three or four preachers are now available. Also, after the sermons the priests are available for confessions, to the great benefit of the country people. Previously, in some places they were fortunate if they had three or four sermons the whole of Lent.

Besides, the clergy devoted to preaching,

  1. are more inclined to lead an exemplary life, and
  2. are more given to study as a preparation.

In this way they save themselves from laziness and a host of other disorders.

Because they preach simply and directly to the people, as they were taught in the seminary, people from five or six of the neighboring parishes come to hear them.

We observe priests acquiring the spirit of zeal in the seminary for the salvation of souls. Not only do they hear confessions assiduously on Sundays and feast-days, but also on weekdays too, something almost unheard of before. The great number of the pastors of the country parishes who had been in the seminary, try to have a priest with them. They hope to continue with greater facility the exercises of piety they observed in the seminary, and so preserve more easily the good resolves they have taken.

There are entire dioceses, in which before the establishment of the seminaries it was hard to find a single priest in the country places who dressed in black. Most wore gray, and after their morning mass went to work just like the usual lay person. Since the institution of the seminary, almost all wear at least a short cassock. A large number are in full cassock, with their hair cut short, and their general appearance befitting a priest.

We have seen good benefices given up to allow the priests greater freedom to catechize and hear confessions in the country parishes, where the need is greatest.

There are others who upon leaving the seminary worked chiefly at inspiring this same zeal in rural priests. Sometimes, up to fifty of these priests live in a single parish, apart from one another, a league or more from the church. An attempt was made to bring them together gently once a week for a spiritual conference, not only for these poorly prepared priests, but also for the sick poor whom they help in their illnesses.

We have seen many rural priests much taken with the good example of those who came from the seminary. They made many changes in their own lives, and this edified the entire diocese. Some came from as far away as twenty-five leagues to make a retreat, to solidify their good resolutions.

Ordinarily, the clergy of the country assemble now on the vigil of a feast to plan the liturgy, so it will be celebrated with greater devotion and edification for the people. They write to us for suggestions about this, showing the appreciation they have had for the divine offices since the establishment of the seminary.

In some nearby dioceses, catechism never used to be taught, but now there is practically none in which it not taught well, and most devotedly.

Before finishing this chapter we should not fail to mention that Monsieur Vincent was not satisfied to give instructions and all possible spiritual help to those in the seminary of the Bons Enfants which was the responsibility of his Congregation. Besides that, he saw to it during these first years that some who were unable to pay their board but who gave promise of profiting from the exercises there, were supported by the Congregation, aided by gifts and alms from others.

Monsieur Vincent's goodness inspired other pious persons to contribute to other seminaries as a help to needy students. Among others, a noted and pious priest sent over the space of ten or twelve years a large sum each year to the seminary of Troyes in Champagne, and to Annecy in Savoy, for the support of poor students. [13] This enabled them to be prepared for useful service to the Church in their dioceses. No doubt such alms were agreeable to God, especially because such good results could be hoped for from them, for the glory of God and the good of his Church. A good priest is capable of doing such good that this led Monsieur Vincent to say several times: "What a great thing to be a priest! What can he not accomplish! But, with the grace of God, who can say what he can do? [14]


  1. In 1637.
  2. Ch. 31.
  3. Saint Vincent supported making a clear distinction between what would later be called "minor" and "major" seminaries. The college of Bons-Enfants became in effect a major seminary, under the name of Saint Firmin. The younger students were transferred to the newly established "Petit Saint Lazare," (Seminary of Saint Charles) in order to continue their studies in the humanities, thus in effect constituting a minor seminary.
  4. Adrien Bourdoise, a priest of the community of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris.
  5. Ps 19:5.
  6. John 20:21.
  7. CED XII:83-86.
  8. CED XI:7-8.
  9. Blessed Alain de Solminihac. See CED VIII:79.
  10. CED III:343.
  11. This report came from Jean Dehorgny, the director of the seminary at Bons-Enfants in Paris.
  12. Treguier.
  13. Monsieur Chomel, the vicar general of the diocese of Saint Flour. He came from Lyons, and was a councillor at the Paris parlement. He had been a student of Monsieur Vincent's at Bons-Enfants, and he later supported with his zeal and fortune the works of the saint, and several houses of the Congregation, particularly those at Lyons, Troyes, Annecy, Angers, and Saint Flour.
  14. CED XI:7.

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